LONDON The Afghan government and its Western allies now have their eyes set on ending the eight-year war, and recognize the only way of achieving peace is to talk to the Taliban and give them a role in the nation's future.
President Hamid Karzai told an international conference in London he will first set up a National Council for Peace, Reconciliation and Reintegration to look at ways of engaging with the Taliban. That will be soon followed by a loya jirga, a meeting of elders that traditionally resolves disputes.
Karzai will invite the Taliban to be represented at the jirga, a government spokesman said, a tacit recognition that the austere Islamist insurgents have a role in the political future of the country which has been traumatized by 30 years of successive conflicts.
"You have to be willing to engage with your enemies if you expect to create a situation that ends an insurgency or so marginalizes the remaining insurgents that it doesn't pose a threat to the stability and security of the people," said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Kabul is keen the peace process is "Afghan-led and Afghan-owned" and wants to keep foreigners at bay.
That will both increase the likelihood that the Taliban will send representatives to the meeting and also allows the United States and its European allies to say with hand on heart that they are not negotiating with the Taliban themselves.
"The real $64,000 question is that since the Taliban is in a strong position, why should they negotiate? Why don't they simply wait it out and wear their opponent down?" said Paul Rogers, professor of peace studies at Britain's Bradford University.
Contacts though, have already begun. Members of the Taliban's leadership council secretly met the United Nations special envoy to Afghanistan in Dubai on January 8, a U.N. official told Reuters on condition of anonymity. "They requested a meeting to talk about talks," the official said.
Following a re-election marred by widespread charges of fraud, Karzai still needs to hold the jirga, even if the Taliban do not turn up, to get a mandate from Afghan leaders not in the insurgent camp to proceed with talking to the Taliban.
Much has been written about Western troops getting bogged down in a never-ending fruitless fight with the Taliban, but it takes two to make a stalemate.
The Taliban are also not achieving their objective of driving foreign troops off Afghan soil. Far from it, the number of U.S. and NATO troops has climbed steadily from 40,000 two years ago to more than 100,000 now and is set to rise further.
The number of Afghan government forces is also set to rise by about two-thirds to around 300,000 by the end of 2011.
Veteran observers detect a measure of Taliban war-weariness and see hints of a willingness to compromise amid the rhetoric of insurgent statements.
The key demand for the West is that the Taliban cut ties with al Qaeda; the original target of the war following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. Saudi Arabia also wants the same thing in order to agree to play the role of mediator.
While the Taliban have not made that break, their statements now repeatedly stress they pose no threat to the West, indicating they would not again let al Qaeda use Afghanistan as a base for attacks abroad.
For their part, the Taliban's main demand has always been the withdrawal of foreign troops as a pre-condition to talks.
U.S. President Barack Obama's pledge to start withdrawing troops in 2011 could help to persuade them to compromise on their demand for a full pull-out as a prelude to negotiations.
If there is a diplomatic route out of the impasse, it is certain to be just like Afghanistan's roads -- tortuous and filled with potholes. There will also be many breakdowns along the way. At the very least, Afghanistan's Western backers have now come round to the idea that it is a journey worth starting.
"It's far too early to say whether this is a turning point. Historians will make that judgment. But we hope that it might be," said Mark Sedwill, NATO's new civilian representative to Afghanistan.
(Editing by Myra MacDonald/David Stamp)